“You are about to have Oleoresin Capsicum spray applied to your face. Once that has happened, you will engage the inmate with a baton while giving verbal commands. Do not stop for rest. Continue the fight until time is called. Do you understand?”
I nodded. My heart was pounding, body slick with sweat. My legs were rubber from the last two fights I had just gone through, so nodding was all I could do.
“Step forward and demonstrate on the target how you want to be sprayed.” I grabbed the canister and tried my best to spray the cut out face of Saddam Hussein as lightly as possible. The instructors caught me. They weren’t strangers to this little sham.
“Nice try, cadet. Do it again.” I sprayed, a little closer and heavier this time, hoping that it wasn’t too much. They handed me the baton and then sprayed my face. I felt a little tingle on my face when the OC hit me. This isn’t too bad, I thought when the tingle grew into unexpected and unprecedented burning. It felt like having the Devil’s seed flung onto your face. I swung and swung and yelled out commands for five minutes of eternity. The voice of the instructors, the smack of baton on canvas and my heavy breathing amalgamated into one sound, one rhythm. Smack. Smack. Smack. Breathe. Smack. Smack. Smack. Breathe. Smack. Smack. Smack. Breathe.
“C’mon cadet! Finish him! Louder!”
Next thing I knew, I was rinsing my eyes out, getting pats on the back from classmates and instructors alike. I was exhausted. I’d fought as hard as I could for multiple rounds. Every ounce of energy seeped out of my flesh and muscles. My baptism into the corrections world was complete.
I haven’t served time. I have neither been charged with nor arrested for any crime. My only interaction with the law came from the occasional traffic ticket. I worked in a jail. I spent four years as a Corrections Officer in a Travis County jail.
During that time I have been scared, exhausted, sick, angry and bored. I’ve been up for twenty-four hours before my shift even started. I’ve felt hate, compassion and forgiveness within the same shift, sometimes towards the same inmate. I learned never to back down and when to compromise. Contradictory, yes, but also incredibly true in life, whether in jail or not.
Disclaimer: pseudonyms as well as first names only will be used in this piece. Some inmates are still housed in the jail and I’d rather not cause any issues with his/their case(s).
The building I worked in was this massive 3-football field long, multi-unit multi-security classification concrete and steel beast. All classes are based off of the severity of an inmate’s crime, previous arrest history or disciplinary record within the jail. Each class got eight to twelve different units organized into “pods.” In each unit, an officer is out-numbered forty-eight to sixty-four inmates to one officer.
Forty-eight to sixty-four to one.
Think about that: at any one time, I had to stare down, cajole, control, console, counsel and discipline 48-64 full grown men on a daily basis. Each inmate was an individual with his own idiosyncrasies, flaws and lives. And in that potential danger came moments linked with confusion, compassion or fear.
One night, I was in one of the Charlie units. These units were open-bay, with chest height walls for cells, no doors and bunks within reach of every other inmate. They were loud too. Sound bounces around pretty well in an open-aired room made of concrete and steel. Working there put my nerves on edge from reverberations, keeping constant vigilance in keeping guys out of each other’s cells and the potential of being swarmed without warning. Nothing could stop a man from coming out of his cell and sucker punching me in the middle of a post visual or talking to another inmate.
In a place such as this, I came to enjoy the utter stillness of 2 a.m. It’s a silence I preferred undisturbed. So, when things happen in those peaceful times, they tend to stick out. One night I saw this guy come out of his cell and start dancing, just right into the dayroom. I looked at him, not entirely sure of what my eyes were telling me. Typically, if a guy wanted out of his cell, he’d raise his hand and get permission and depending on what he wanted, I’d let him out. If he got too loud or was somewhere he didn’t belong, I’d give the guy a second and then flash him with my post flashlight as a warning to move along. It’s a system that everyone understood.
What made this guy, let’s call him Juan, so odd was that there was no rhyme or reason for it. None. And at that time of night, behavior such as this suspicious and a little creepy. I had to look around the room and at other inmates to make sure they saw what I saw. What was even stranger was he maintained eye contact with me the whole time, as if he knew exactly what he was doing, even if I still didn’t.
A few dance moves more. An arm twist here, a pop and lock there. I finally I gave the guy a “What the Hell are you doing?” look and gestured him to mosey on back into his cell. He complied. Well, sort of.
A short while later, maybe twenty minutes or so, he came out again. Dancing and a-twirling, raving to a one man party. And each time he came out and about, I’d send him right back. I had no idea what to do with Juan. I called my buddy out in the pod. He told me: “you got two options at this point. Do nothing and lose control of the unit as they all giggle at the mother fucker, ignore you while you have a long night ahead trying to keep control.”
“Option two. Write him up for MHMR. Get him put behind some doors and then he’s out of your hair. Doors are the only thing that’ll work on this guy. He’s clearly not all there anyway.”
MHMR means Mental Health Mental Retardation. In a way, I’d declared the guy crazy. Which, well, he was in a way. So, instead of violence and a night of headaches, I wrote the referral. A few phone calls later, he was gone. It turns out the best way to get rid of a guy like that is to declare him mentally irregular.
After a few phone calls, Juan found himself in a unit with some nice, steel doors and for all I know, he kept dancing into the night.
Or, it was all a ruse. A ruse to get exactly what we gave him—doors. Doors equal safety, and guys have enemies in different places. I’ll never know if we got conned or not. At the time I didn’t care—he was out of my hair for the night.
That’s the thing about jail. Someone is always watching and someone will always pull some kind of stunt as a test. And it doesn’t matter if you’re wearing stripes or tan. Something happens, you need to act on it. That is why I said I had to learn not to back down—it’s a test of manhood. Not literally of course. Although since the job is overwhelmingly male on both sides of the door, it might as well be. I didn’t really have the power to declare someone crazy. I’m not a doctor. I just point out when inmates are acting weirder than the normal inmate weird.
So, the reason I mention the ruse is that I always had difficulty getting across to people when I told them about inmates: these men lie. They don’t want your sympathy or even your empathy, unless either one serves their purposes. The con is a selfish being and the games he will play are selfish acts. Mentally, they have not grown past early adolescence. By that I mean while you and I have learned that there are things bigger than us and that our feelings don’t matter compared to others’; that’s not the case for them.
To inmates, the only thing that matters is them. The only thing that drives everything they do is “What about mine? What about me?” There is no real conscience that considers the end result of their actions. That’s why you see reports about teenagers beating WWII veterans to death quickly followed by blank-faced mugshots: They. Don’t. Care.
And despite all that, they’re still human. They have human flaws, human lives and human failures. Because of this, they’re still due some semblance of compassion. Officers may not like it, some inmates doubt it and a vocal minority outside of the walls screams for it. And in a way, they’re right. Compassion is sometimes more useful than anger.
One night, when the inmates were still out and about, I saw this kid who couldn’t have been more than nineteen or twenty years old, and not even up to my shoulder (I’m about 5’9”), talking on the phone. Every two hours, all of the inmates need to be sent back to their cells for thirty minutes to be counted. Ten minutes before that, the lights are turned out, phones cut off and TVs go blank.
Right up to the last minute, this kid was still talking on the phone with someone who was clearly his girl out in the free world. I could tell from my super-sleuth skills of spotting tears and hearing “C’mon baby, why you gotta do that?” over and over and let’s be honest here: who else but a woman can make a guy get all blubbery like that kid did? I watched the whole scene play out, catching snippets of the conversation.
I found out why he had grown so upset: his girlfriend was pregnant with his child and she was leaving him for his best friend. And was going to terminate the pregnancy.
Anyway, his time was up, the count was coming and I walked right up to the kid and said, “I’m sorry man, but I gotta cut you off.” He heard me, told his girl goodbye, and hung up. After another minute or two.
The thing is, normally I’d just cut the phones off or tear into a guy for trying to pull more phone time. They get a fair warning and they know the rules. But not that kid. I just couldn’t. It just wasn’t right. To lay into someone when essentially two lives ended that night. I offered to let the kid step out of the unit and into the pod, get his head right.
It’s tough to find your emotional center when surrounded by a crowd of loud, obnoxious men where face matters. He turned down my offer, but I could tell he was appreciative. Being that young, a girl at home who’s leaving and realizing your life has pretty much stopped? That you and your internal universe are trapped within a bubble separated from the world without. It’s tough to handle, especially at nineteen.
An officer can be all hard, tough and strict like in Shawshank, and yes, that’ll get results. To a point. Being a dick only works for so long. After that, he’s basically goading all those inmates, stirring the pot until it boils over and cracks his head open. I never fully realized the power of compassion until I met that kid and saw the tears and appreciation in his eyes. Someone in his very short life decided to spare him the rod of discipline.
There was another guy, another night, along the same vein as Juan. This large and disturbed vein was named Dominique. I won’t list his last name just for his own and my protection. By the time Dominique and I crossed paths, I had a pretty good handle on the job. I’d worked with all three security levels, written guys up and even tossed quite a few into lockdown. I could stare down and out-argue and I knew it. I was new, so the fire still burned and I used every bit of that flame to do my job and do it well. Dominique was, in a word, interesting.
Dominique was tall, much taller than I am. His face was gaunt, cheeks scraped up and pitted. Like a lot of guys, Dominique came onto the complex a little worse for wear. Wear and tear typically comes from the arrest, especially if it’s a doozy like Dominique’s.
The man’s eyes were wide, with dark irises filling even larger whites. They were focused yet a little wild. His eyes shared the same look as Dylan Roof’s, James Eagan Holmes’ and Nidal Hassan’s: they were there but not there, hyper-aware and unphased by the lot he’d found himself in. They were eyes of the experienced.
Turns out, Dominique had quite the adventure before he stepped into my unit. Released after fifteen years in TDC (Texas Department of Corrections, the state prison system), Dominique took it upon himself to liberate a man and his daughter from their lives, supposedly because said father was a drug dealer. Dominique immediately took flight from Texas City (so would I after a double murder) and made his way to my county, kidnapping an elderly couple and using their car to continue his journey.
Stopping at a gas station, Dominique forced the wife to get out and make her way to the ATM to withdraw all their cash. Seeing an opportunity, the couple fled. Dominique took off in their car like a bat out of hell, finally stopped by deputies once he got into my county. Fifteen charges total were filed on him, most of which I don’t even remember. There was no doubt Dominique was going back to TDC. That’s why he was so different–there was an aura of menace and finality surrounding him at all times.
I was but a plebe to him, and he knew it. Down in my gut, I knew it too. Hell, everyone in that unit knew it.
Everyone was out and about for the next couple hours, playing chess, cards and the like. It was the typical, jovial hectic activity of men in captivity. But when Dominique entered, the joviality thickened into tension. Some stopped playing, others gave way like weaker dogs.
The dynamic within the unit had changed, and I knew it would be Hell trying to shift it back. Every move and technique we’d been taught in training course he knew and called out, “I see you taking a combat stance, man. Getting ready just in case, right? Yeah, you is.” Or getting pissy because he wasn’t supposed to sit on the floor in front of walkways: “Damn man! I’m just sittin’ here!” Dominique did all of this in the most vocal way possible, drawing all attention on him and me. Decision points were crossed and I made the decision to do nothing, hoping to keep the peace. I could feel the menace circling in around me, my newfound confidence evaporating little by little.
But there was something I had that he didn’t. Something that separated me from him: my sanity.
At this point in my rotation, maybe two or three weeks in, things stabilized. No incidents flared up, the nights stayed quiet. Dominique kept to his area, running his little commissary “store” out of his cell and I kept away from him.
A “store” is when an inmate buys a bunch of stuff off of commissary and then turns around and sells it to his fellow inmates either for profit, meal trays or favors; this is not only against the rules but can lead to many problems including fights.
One night, around 1 a.m. or so I was making the rounds of the floor. As I walked by one cell in particular, I heard a whisper through the door: “Boss man! Boss man, I got a problem.”
I turned my head. Dominique was standing at the cell door’s window, his eyes wide, tired.
“What is it, Dominique?” I asked, leaning my ear towards the space between the door jamb and door, trying to hear him better.
“I-I can’t sleep, man. It’s been three days. I’ve done jerked off four times, tried rolling over and I still can’t sleep.” Hearing him say that didn’t shock me. I’d seen plenty of bodily functions go on in this human zoo. I also knew said sleep aid of which he spoke (it’s a guy thing). What he said next however, did surprise me.
“Why can’t you sleep, man?”
Dominique looked me straight in the eye, serious as a heart ache and said, “They watching me, man.” He nudged his chin in a direction behind me, glancing at the wall.
I followed his eye line. There was nothing. No one.
“Who’s watching you, Dominique?”
“The FBI, boss. The CIA,” Dominique said, looking me straight in the eye. His whites grew wider, whiter, not unlike a riled up horse, “everyone is.” He held the stare longer than most would be comfortable with. I looked back into those whites, trying to form a response.
“What do you need from me?” I said, doing my best to sound as helpful and considerate as possible, hoping the growing sense of unease within me didn’t poke its head out into my voice. That, and my own internal dialogue: What the fuck? Friggin’ Looney Tunes, man.
I know, I sound heartless at the time of all this and in a way I was. You learn to harden your heart in that environment and sniff out bullshit. It’s a necessity walking the floor.
Even though I was heartless in my mind, I knew in my actions and in my words I had a job to do and that some level of compassion would help me do that job. Inmates are a lot like children in that regard—they know, for the most part, whether or not an officer is telling the truth. They also know if you’re blowing them off. If any sort of dismissiveness or derision directed their way was picked up you not only piss them off, they’d make your life hell. That’ll make control momentarily difficult and you may very well lose their trust and with it, their compliance in the future.
All of this went through my mind in about .06 seconds. It wasn’t a tough decision.
“I’ll tell you what I’ll do, man. I’ll send up an MHMR and see what medical can do about getting you some help.”
Dominique grew agitated. “I already sent in a request, man. I need my meds, man!”
“I know Dominique, I know. I read the request the other day. You’ve gotta be patient with it.”
“But why’s it gotta take so long? They all see me boss man. They see me. Always lookin’. Always. It’s been three days and I can’t sleep!”
I held my hand up in a placating gesture, to keep Dominique from getting too worked up. “I know, I know. It’s tough. But it’s a system and that system is how you get what you need. Keep trying and be patient. Can you do that for me?”
He calmed down some from his excited state. “Ok, I’ll try. Thanks, boss man.”
“Hey, no problem.”
I walked back to my post desk, banged out the referral and sent it out. I kept my word. And eventually Dominique got his meds and new housing, far away from the general population.
At the time, I didn’t think anything of what he said beyond Well, yeah. You committed a bunch of crimes, guy, some probably federal. I was just glad that my rotation in that unit was almost done. It wasn’t until five years later, as I write this out now, that I came to a different conclusion. I think in his own way, in his mind, Dominique understood the severity of his crimes. The weight of his sins.
And that’s the truth of it. I left the jail in 2014 and walked away with a new perspective. We all have a price to pay. Everything we have done and everything we have failed to do, in our hearts and in our words, and our actions all come at cost. It is a weight we all bear, deep within our souls. Good and bad, beautiful and ugly, rich and poor—all are human and all humans have this within them. You can wish it away, call it morally relative, call it archaic but the reality is that the worm of conscience burrows ever deeper until we come to terms with what we’ve done and make it right. If we don’t, the cost may be too high to bear.
That’s what jail is. It is a microcosm of the failure of conscience. It is the representation of the darkness, the vulnerability and the frailty of human hearts and minds. It is the embodiment of that cost in both the legal, physical realm without and the immaterial, spiritual realm within. That’s what I learned in jail: I found humanity.
David L. Van Vranken is deployed overseas in support of Operation Enduring Freedom as an Engineer Officer. He has spent seven years in the Army and has enjoyed every minute of it. Back home, he works as a QA/QC Inspector for Vaughn Construction out of Houston, Texas. This essay is a reflection of his experiences as a Corrections Officer for Travis County, and it is his first publication.